Hutchins Library
Special Collections & Archives
Guide to the Council of the Southern Mountains Records, 1912-1970; History

CSM logoAccession Number: 1
The Council of the Southern Mountains Records
Papers: 1912-1970
144 linear feet
Online Catalog Record (BANC)

[Click here for printable PDF version] (541 KB)

Overview & Series Description
Series I - Organizational and Administrative Records, 1915-1975
Series II - General Correspondence, 1957-1970
Series III - Annual Conference Records, 1912-1974
Series IV- Financial Records, 1923-1970
Series V - Funding Agencies, 1952-1970
Series VI - Commission Records, 1926-1972
Series VII - Community Action Program (CAP) Materials, 1946-1970
Series VIII - Mountain Life & Work, 1925-1970
Series IX - Urban Migrants, 1935-1970
Series X - Reference Materials, 1913-1970
Series XI - Photographs


The Council of the Southern Mountains (originally Conference of Southern Mountain Workers) was formed in
1912 as the result of fact-finding travels during 1908-1909 by John C. and Olive Dame Campbell, under
sponsorship of New York’s Russell Sage Foundation.

The Campbells concluded that there was a pressing need to bring southern Appalachian mission workers
together to share ideas, experiences and enthusiasms. An exploratory organizational meeting in Atlanta drew
137 persons. This response encouraged the participants to establish a formal organization and to plan an
annual meeting which served as the organization’s core. The Council had no regular funding in the beginning.
Instead, each year the Russell Sage Foundation underwrote conference general expenses, with those attending
paying their own way. John C. Campbell was the central figure in maintaining the Council until his death in
1919. Olive Dame Campbell then became Executive Secretary and served until 1928, when she left to focus all
her energies on establishing the John C. Campbell Folk School at Brasstown, North Carolina.

Helen Dingman, of the Berea College Sociology Department, succeeded Mrs. Campbell. She was already editor
for the Council’s Magazine Mountain Life & Work, which the Council had taken over from Berea College in
1929. Miss Dingman remained part-time Executive Secretary until 1942, assisted by two part-time staff
persons. The group’s name was changed to the Council of Southern Mountain Workers in 1944, and finally to
the Council of the Southern Mountains in 1954.

From the Council’s 1912 founding until 1949, its primary activity was planning and conducting the annual
conferences. The work of the Board of Directors was mainly to find funding and speakers for those events.
Board membership during these years was composed of representatives of church mission boards, colleges,
and settlement schools.

The conferences brought hundreds of people together and served as forums for discussion of problems and
solutions. They also provided the impetus for smaller groups to cooperate in mounting a variety of projects not
directly related to the Council. One such spin-off was the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild, a cooperative
established in 1929 as a marketing outlet for mountain craftspeople.

The Council membership combined a wealth of knowledge and practical experience. This resulted in it being
called on by the United States Department of Agriculture to act as advisor in conducting a pioneer study of the
Appalachian south. Published in 1935, this study’s results became the standard reference work on the area for
many years. The Council also helped implement the Mountain Folk Festival in 1935 and the related Christmas
Country-Dance School at Berea College in 1939.

In response to its developing year-round undertakings, the Council’s Board in 1939 for the first time appointed
standing committees (later called commissions). These were in the areas of health, recreation, education, and
spiritual life. The Council also worked closely with benevolent organizations, such as the Sigma Phi Gamma
Sorority, to establish social and economic service programs.

The Council’s already delicate financial health was threatened further when funding dollars became particularly
scarce during the 1940s. Frustration and years of seeing worthy projects going underfunded lead to shrinking
membership rolls. Financial support from both Berea College and the Sage Foundation stopped in 1949. The
Council office was moved from Berea to Asheville, North Carolina, where it shared space with the Southern
Highland Handicraft Guild. A new executive secretary was needed and the original intention of the Board was
to appoint a person to see the Council through to its expected demise.

The Board selected Perley F. Ayer to fill this role in 1951. A rural sociologist from New Hampshire, then
teaching at Berea College, Ayer proved to be anything but a caretaker. Instead he set off on an energetic
fifteen-year tenure that resulted in the Council becoming the largest and most significant social organization in
the southern mountains by the mid-1960s. As executive secretary (later, executive director), Ayer was guided
by a philosophy based on faith in people and the desirability of give-and-take discussions at all levels. He saw
the Council as the champion of no one cause or group, but as a forum where differing or even opposing sides
could come together and create positive change. Under Ayer’s leadership, the annual conferences increased in
size and importance. For instance, the 47th Annual Conference, held in 1959, brought together 300 leaders
from all of the southern Appalachian states plus observers from other states and foreign countries. Between
annual conferences, regular state level meetings developed in Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina. His
energetic idealism attracted many people to the Council’s service. One of these was Loyal Jones, a young Berea
College graduate, who Ayer hired as his assistant in 1958, and who would eventually succeed Ayer as executive
director in 1966.

In the years before 1960, Council health, recreation, education, and spiritual life commissions were actively
working on regional problems, often in cooperation with existing state and local agencies. Examples of these
efforts include children’s dental programs in Virginia, maternal and infant care programs in Kentucky, and adult
education classes in Tennessee.

In 1959 the Council sponsored the first of what would be ten annual workshops on the problems of
Appalachian migrants to urban areas. The workshops were aimed at city service professionals, especially those
in health care, social service and law enforcement. The workshops sought to inform these people about what
made Appalachians different and how to deal with these differences so as to reduce tension and a lack of
understanding that was growing on both sides. A later corollary to this program was the establishment in 1963
of the Council’s Chicago Office, the aim of which was to provide migrants with information about coping with
city life and a place where they could get together with their friends.

The focusing of national attention on the problems of Appalachia during the early 1960s brought the Council to
the attention of the federal government. Its long association with the region made it a logical source for federal
agencies to turn to for information about the region, suggestions for corrective measures, and eventually
leadership in implementing federally funded programs. The Council was an important resource for the
President’s 1964 Appalachian Regional Study, which resulted in the establishment of the Appalachian Regional
Commission. The year 1964 was an outstanding growth year, with the size of Council staff, budget, and
numbers of activities more than doubling. By 1965, the Council’s staff had grown four-fold. However, with
foundation and federal funding came pressure to alter the Council’s working philosophy. Its traditional
consultative approach to coordinating had to transition into a new role of program implementation and
accompanying bureaucratic intricacies. The addition of new talent, highly educated social advocates and
program implementation staff, while navigating required government accounting and operating procedures
both increased the level of passion and complicated administration, priorities, and decision-making.

By the end of the 1960s, changes in leadership and the expansion of the Council staff greatly impacted not only
operations and internal stability, but also the philosophical underpinnings of the Council during a pivotal time
in its history. The 1960s national debate over how to best achieve social change was represented in microcosm
among Council staff and membership. Throughout its early history the Council had represented a middle way
that sought compromise between opposite views and “a reform strategy based upon a consensus of regional
opinion,” a concept that crystallized under the direction of Executive Director Perley F. Ayer and his
“ partnership ideal”. Increasingly, some perceived that a growing number of younger staff opposed the idea of
compromise and eventually anti-establishment minded staff demanded that a stand be taken. The earliest
manifestation of this was the Appalachian Volunteer exit.

The Appalachian Volunteers was one of the first federally funded programs the Council undertook. In 1964 an
initial group of young people from colleges in the north and south spent vacation time in the mountains,
repairing and painting schoolhouses and assisting in teaching and playground activities. The project’s early
results were impressive enough to win a major funding increase for program expansion. However, the
Appalachian Volunteers staff left the Council in May of 1966. They incorporated in Bristol, Virginia, as a nonprofit
organization and were approved to receive the federal funds originally allocated to the Council.

Remaining federal funds allowed the Council to continue promoting the establishment of community action
programs for the Office of Economic Opportunity and on-the-job training and other manpower projects for the
United States Department of Labor.

In December 1968, Perley F. Ayer, Executive Director from 1951-1967 and ideological backbone of the Council,
died suddenly. The resulting leadership vacuum and subsequent organizational changes further highlighted the
larger shift taking place within the structure of the council.

Growing tensions between old and new ideas led to particularly passionate debates among Council members at
the 1969 and 1970 annual conferences. At the 1969 conference, an amendment to the by-laws established the
commission form of organization and required 51% of the Board of Commissioners to be drawn from the ranks
of the region’s poor within three years. The resulting atmosphere of conflict led to the resignations of many of
the Council’s older members. The 1970 conference capped the changes of the previous year with the adoption
of a resolution that the resources of Appalachia should be placed under democratic public control. Believing
this resolve to constitute a socialistic or even communist stance, many additional members resigned.

At this time, Executive Director Loyal Jones sought guidelines from the Board of Commissioners as to how the
Council was to be run. With none forthcoming and no indication of support from the Board, he resigned soon
after the 1970 conference and eventually became the director of a newly established Appalachian Center at
Berea College.

Warren Wright, Julian Griggs, and Isaac Vanderpool formed a temporary leadership triumvirate. The funding
base rapidly shrank as the Council became a crusading organization, more singularly focused on championing
the rights of miners and the fight against strip-mining. The Council moved to Clintwood, Virginia in 1972 and
maintained an active interest in many aspects of regional life. The organization broadened its focus beyond
coal mining issues to include textile mill working conditions, and promotion of community and labor rights.
Management by professional staff was replaced by a grassroots, cooperative structure. Publication of
Mountain Life & Work continued on a monthly basis until the organization disbanded in 1989.

Related Berea College Archives

Related Archives at Other Institutions

  • John C. and Olive Dame Campbell Papers, The Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.
  • Southern Highland Division Papers, Russell Sage Foundation Archives, New York, New York.

Related References

Kiffmeyer, Thomas J. “The Appalachian Volunteers: Fighting the War on Poverty in Kentucky, 1963-1970.” Thesis (MA) Eastern Kentucky University, 1988.

Kiffmeyer, Thomas J. “From Self-Help to Sedition: The Appalachian Volunteers: and the War on Poverty in eastern Kentucky, 1963-1970.” Thesis (Ph.D) University of Kentucky, 1998.

Messinger, Penny. Leading the Field of Mountain Work: the Conference of Southern Workers, 1913-1950. UMI
Dissertations, 1998.

David Whisnant, “Controversy in God’s Grand Division: The Council of the Southern Mountains,” Appalachian Journal, Volume 2, Autumn, 1974, No. 1.

“ More Controversy in God’s Grand Division: Communications to the Editor,” Appalachian Journal, Volume 2, Spring, 1975,No. 3.

Alfred H. Perrin, ed., Seeking a People Partnership - Challenges by Perley Ayer. 36 pages. 1969.

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